Japan_ShibuyaGirls

At the time of writing this I am sitting on my bed in the Osaki ward of Tokyo in Japan. The four past months I have spent here have been the most intensive months in my life, and so full of vigor and tight studying that the experience is unrivaled in my life.

Applying to become an exchange student in Japan has proven to be the best decision I have made in my life, but it is also a natural continuum. I applied to study international business in Turku School of Economics (TSE) after having studied Japanese on my own since the second grade of high school. Obviously as I had no chance to study Japanese in high school, self-studying was the only way to go. I thought international business would open me the doors to work abroad in places such as Japan, yet it would allow me to change my plans should my interests change.

Before I applied for exchange and was nominated for studentship in Rikkyo University, I was naturally worried about several things that I could not get enough information of in advance. The application process had a cloak of mystery wrapped upon it. Choosing the best accommodation in a metropolitan city of 35 million people living in the greater Tokyo area was also not easy, and figuring out the actual monthly costs of living in what is said to be one of the world’s most expensive cities required research and effort.

First of all, I warmly recommend any future applicants to listen to the instructions given by exchange officers at the university. The required documents for applying to a faraway university vary slightly depending on the destination and even today I believe I submitted documents that were not actually needed.For me things got more interesting when I had to define my desired length of exchange. I applied for one academic year at Rikkyo University, although if you take a look at the official guidebook, the agreement between TSE and Rikkyo only allows one to be nominated for one semester. However, I was told that the exchange periods printed on this guidebook were not the final word on it, and room for negotiations may exist depending on the balance of incoming and outgoing students. The final decision would then be made by TSE, and the exchange officers promised to do their best to negotiate the ideal length that an applicant wishes for.

Spending a korean night at friend's home and singing karaoke with a mixed group of friends.

Spending a korean night at friend’s home and singing karaoke with a mixed group of friends.

Thus, Turku School of Economics promised to negotiate a longer term for me if they saw it possible considering the balance of students. Apparently there was no room for them as I got my preliminary nomination for one semester in the middle of March. I did not want to give up and decided to give it a shot anyways, against all the protocols. I decided that, with the language skills I had acquired by self-studying and with the help of Japanese exchange students in Turku at that time, I wrote a formal email to Rikkyo University on my own. I asked them whether an extension to the period was possible, and within a week I got Rikkyo’s consent for the extension. I printed out the response, translated it into Finnish and walked into the international office. The exchange officers seemed surprised to say the least, but that way I managed to get an extension to the period on my own. Sometimes it pays off to be proactive!

The next question was accommodation. I could either go for the international dorm offered by Rikkyo University, which only lodges exchange students, or choose to get an apartment from open markets. As a serious student of Japanese I wanted to test my limits and be exposed to the language as much as possible instead of choosing the dorm. Apartments in Tokyo are readily available throughout the year, so it is not really even possible to make a reservation until about two weeks prior to arrival.

Student party.

Student party.

I had to rent the room without seeing it. This is very obvious, because I was not in Japan to see it in advance. The price of the room was cheap for Tokyo standards and if you are scared of cockroaches, do not go for an open market guest house for less than 70,000 yen with utilities included. My bedroom is clean and relatively comfortable now, but the kitchen downstairs is swarming in cockroaches. One of the main reasons for opting for a fully Japanese environment was of course the language, and my co-habitants are indeed all Japanese. However, nobody speaks to each other, ever. I have been greeted twice, and I have only heard people speak in this entire building of 70 rooms when they talk on the phone.

The final open question was the budget I should aim for. The exchange rate of yen was fluctuating all the time with Shinzo Abe carrying out his magnificent monetary policy plans, doing insane quantitative easing and crashing the value of yen against the euro. This was super good news to me. My apartment – or precisely a guesthouse with shared facilities and private bedrooms – costs 60,000 yen* monthly which includes gas, electricity, water, internet and the room itself. On top of that I spend approximately 50,000 yen on food monthly because I am too busy to cook on my own unlike I did in Finland. In fact, the price difference between cooking your own meal and buying it premade from the store is not that huge. You can buy half a liter of 8% alcohol for one euro if you want. Eating dinner at a cheap chain restaurant costs the same as lunch in Turku University with student discount. On top of this I spend anything between 10,000 and 35,000 yen on various activities monthly, and buy clothes and necessities for 2,000 to 15,000 yen monthly. Train costs 5,000 yen a month for my needs. Just keep in mind that the price level in Tokyo is higher than anywhere else in Japan.

University premises

University premises

The first week in Tokyo started out with a blast. Upon landing at Narita international airport I could not get sleep for several days. The first night I spent at a hostel I had been to on my previous travels, and on the next day I signed the housing contract in Japanese with a Japanese contractor. The room had a pillow and a blanket but no mattress suitable for sleeping. I had not slept on the plane either, outside temperature was at +36 and the neighborhood was completely unknown to me. I got the first panic attack in my life and ended up in Ebara hospital somewhere south of my residence at three in the morning. Nobody in the hospital could speak in English, and my Japanese skills proved more than useful.

I was prescribed one single sleeping pill and was instructed to contact my destination university as soon as possible. When I woke up on the rough bed, I had a fever of 38 degrees and I realized I had caught the cold. I could not go and buy a mattress. I did not have a phone number so I could not call the university. I also did not have Internet access outside of my room. I had some friends in Tokyo from my previous travels so I ended up sending messages to them requesting for immediate help. One of my friends skipped her classes, traveled to Osaki to meet me and find a clinic in the nearby area where I could seek for first-aid in the mixture of fever, cold, panic and insomnia in burning hot weather. We could not find one so we called Rikkyo university, from where an international officer traveled to Osaki and paid my taxi ride to Yotsuya clinic in central Tokyo. I finally got medicine to get me over the worst and to get back on track.

In a couple of days the worst symptoms of the cold had lifted and one of my tutors gave me coordinates to the nearest mattress shop. Once again nobody could speak English, but I could speak to the shop staff in Japanese and surprisingly enough, their children were also studying in Rikkyo university. The next day I registered myself as a citizen of Tokyo and I did a virgin visit to the university campus to meet the international staff. I was questioned whether or not I want to pursue on my exchange plans after the initial trouble I faced, but of course my determined answer was a yes.

The course offering in Rikkyo is a mixture of this and that. One Rikkyo credit equals two TSE credits. Students have to select a minimum number of credits for the semester, which equals to about seven courses per semester. The language courses are worth one credit each and most other courses are worth two credits. It is not necessary to study Japanese, but 99% of us exchange students have chosen Japanese courses. Japanese is taught on different levels ranging from the absolute beginner (J0) to fluent (J8) and a placement test at the start of the semester will determine the level for which you are allowed to register.

Local friends.

Local friends.

I have registered for eight courses: Japanese reading (J4), Japanese grammar (J5), Japanese composition (J5), Japanese listening and speaking (J5), Japanese literature (J4-J6), Japanese society, Japanese culture and Japanese economy. The society, culture and economy classes are conducted in English while the Japanese classes have an actual rule that nobody is allowed to speak a word of English in class without permission. Rikkyo university also offers an International Business introduction course worth 8 TSE credits that compensates for KV1 in Turku School of Economics. However, I could not take it this semester because of overlapping Japanese courses. The quality of teaching is excellent with teachers having genuine interest in teaching, although sometimes the topics that are being taught are somewhat basic. We have had two guest lecturers in the economy class, the first being a professor specialized in microfinance from the world-famous Tokyo university, and the second being a manager-level representative from LinkedIn Japan.

Studying in Japan has a bad reputation for being very busy and tiresome. This is partly something that you can affect with your choice of courses, but also partly something that is unfortunately true. Attendance is required for all classes with a maximum of 3 absences before you will drop out. Homework is given from every class weekly, with additional reports and exams on top of the homework. For intermediate Japanese the weekly average is one hand-written essay (800 characters), writing five example sentences for reading class, writing ten example sentences of grammar, reading 5 pages of a Japanese novel and reading 20 pages of English articles and writing a reflective essay of about five paragraphs based on it in English for both society and culture classes. The end-semester reports in English are 8 pages and 9 pages for society and culture class respectively, and each Japanese class has its own final exam. The economy class required me to have a 40 minute presentation in English during fall, and the final exam is a five minute speech on a freely chosen topic about Japanese economy.

Cooking international and Japanese food with Rikkyo students.

Cooking international and Japanese food with Rikkyo students.

When you combine studies with your spare time, which will inevitably involve circle activities, your leftover time after necessary domestic chores nears zero. Japan is a group-based society, which means that universities have extremely active groups of students with common interests doing things together. You will inevitably become part of them. Rikkyo university has two active internationally oriented circles with dozens of members in both of them, but in reality I only have time to attend the other. We eat lunch together three times a week and we usually have activities at least weekly, sometimes more than once a week. Everything we do, we do it as a big group with 20 to 40 people attending. The activities consist of cultural exchange, movie nights at the university, going to attractions such as Disneyland and DisneySea or going to camp overnight during the autumn to see beautiful autumn leaves near Mt. Fuji.

One of the famous downsides foreign exchange students face in Japan is the language barrier. It is true that I have been in uncountable situations where the other person is unable to communicate with me in English. Basic Japanese will get you very far already, but in the most extreme places where all text is in Japanese, you will occasionally feel lost if you cannot read the text. Even though the language situation is comparatively bad, in Tokyo it is still better than in other parts of Japan. Nowadays major signs have been translated into English so navigation is easy even if you do not know the simplest greetings. As for the circle activities, the other circle speaks mostly Japanese while the other circle is a mixed circle. Students nowadays are more proactive and willing to use English, but you will find that the deepest connections with people and gatherings outside of specific circle activities are somewhat limited to people who understand Japanese – for example singing to Gangnam Style in its original language with a mixed Japanese-Korean party in the home of a Korean exchange student.

In Tokyo, there are lots of places to see, and many of them you will end up seeing as a group. The major attractions only last for a couple of months until you want to start traveling to the rest of the country – in which case Kyoto is very, very highly recommended especially if you stay here during the autumn.

Spending a day in Yoyogi park with some members of the Japanese speaking international circle.

Spending a day in Yoyogi park with some members of the Japanese speaking international circle.

Looking back at the four months, actively attending all events I could, doing all the homework and experiencing the culture has given me invaluable cultural knowledge. The pace is in fact so intensive that if you are serious about it and know some of the language, interfering with human relationships, entering and existing love drama and finding a partner is also not something impossible as I have personally experienced. Managing your lifestyle and pursuing for your dreams requires effort, but it gives a lot in return. I still have over seven months left in this country and cannot wait to see what kind of things I will get to experience – hopefully nothing disastrous like the famous tsunami, although magnitude 4 to 5 earthquakes are a weekly occurrence.

Jaakko Rajaniemi
Rikkyo University (International business, 9/2013-7/2014)